Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I love comic books, I love spies, so naturally I would love comic books about spies. Weather it is covert ops in the world of capes and tights or the gritty realistic world of Queen and Country, secret agents and comics go together like bacon on a maple doughnut (Trust me if you are not from Oregon you may not realize that it is the best tasting thing ever but it is) The only limits on comics are the writers imagination and the artists talent. So with comics you have every7thing from black op fairy tale princess, secret agent supers, Star Wars operatives to realistic portraits of agents with real life problems. So here is a list of some great espionage comics. It is of course not nearly complete. In fact two of my favorite espionage titles Red and Global Frequency are left of because I covered them in my post about Warren Ellis.
SpyBoy Written by Peter David for Dark Horse, SpyBoy is a lot like the Austin Powers movies in that it is both a parody and loving tribute. It features, an on the surface a normal school boy named Alex Fleming. His name is of course a salute to Ian Fleming the creator of James Bond. His father Sean Moore (Whose name is a mixing of Sean Canary and Roger Moore) was an agent for an organization called SHIRTS that fights a team of evil doers who go by the name SKINS. Alex’s father allows a secondary personality to be secretly hidden in to Alex. His SpyBoy persona is an excellent marksman, master at martial arts and capable of incredible acrobatic moves. Alex has to just make his superspy alter ego compatible with his fifteen year old student self.
He is teamed up with agent Bombshell a more experience agent who grudgingly acts as his field mentor. Her cover is as high school student Mata Hari. To explain why she is always in close proximity to Alex, she publicly announces herself as his girlfriend. This is off course a sham and destroys Alex’s dating life. SpyBoy perfectly blends comedy with action as well as espionage genre and teen angst.
Black Widow. I have publicly said that I am not a fan of the ‘Big Two’ (DC and Marvel). It is not that I don’t like them per se. I am not one of those guys who has a pathological hatred for one publisher and takes every free moment to explain why they suck. I think their immense and constantly changing universes just overwhelm me. Also probably most importantly I have only so much money to spend on comics, and I find the indy stuff a better bang for my buck. I also am not a big fan of overly powerful characters, I like characters who are better than human but only to a certain degree. That said I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Black Widow.
I have read three arcs, that while set in the Marvel Universe are more spy thriller than super hero story. Home Coming, The Things they Say About Her, and In the Name of the Rose. Due to funding and opportunity I have not yet read Widow Maker, which some call the ultimate Marvel spy story, but it is on the list. I am sure that I miss some nuances not being an expert in the MU’s super hero mythos but the stories do well as espionage stories in their own right.
The cold war world is alive and hot in the MU. They don’t just use Russia as Natasha’s point of origin and then ignore it. Her nationality is a sense of pride but also a looming threat as her history comes back to haunt her. Like many other Marvel characters such as Gambit and The Punisher, Black Widow started out as a minor bad guy before she defected to the West and the Side of good. But she has a load of dark side tradecraft, such as seduction or shooting a killer in the leg so he can’t escape and tossing a grenade into his car.
Danger Girl. On the surface Danger Girl should be the kind of stuff I should be writing against, not gleefully admitting that I love. Basic writing and cheese cake art shouldn’t be a good thing should it? Now when I say basic writing I don’t mean bad writing it is just the art is much more important that the story. There are surprisingly in depth morals under all those long legs and tight abs. The stories center on concepts such as, trust and the lack of trust, can a person really change, what do you do when you think you have failed, what makes a family, and becoming the person you can be under incredible stress. These are the cake under the cheese cake frosting. Let’s not fool our self J. Scott Campbell piles on a metric crap ton of cheesecake frosting on the DG cake. But Danger Girl is more than Abby Chase’s tight green pants. What it is, is fun.
DG never takes itself too seriously. Which is a big plus in my book. With a male agent Johnny Barracuda who is Bruce Campbell’s twin separated at birth as comic relief you know you are in for a roller coaster of fun. The main problem with Danger Girl at least the initial run was inconstant publishing dates. Basically it seemed like the books were put out whenever J. Scott got around to it. It has gotten a lot better now. In fact there have been some pretty cool cross over titles, with Batman, Army of Darkness and G.I. Joe. This has kept the series fresh and exciting.
Many espionage comics where the protagonist are female have some kind of plot device used by men to keep the woman down. In Black Widow it is a cologne that Nick Furry and the big bad in Homecoming, use to rob Natasha of her enhanced powers and make her docile. In executive Assistant Iris it is a mind control chip that will make a loyal body guard kill her charge. Sure DG has mind control but it gets used on men and women equally. In one funny scene in the Bat Man cross over Abby uses a mind control ray to make The Joker cautiously punch himself in the face. In DG the men folk may think they rule the world and underestimate the girls, but in ways it is an equally balanced world, the girls just have more style and fun at what they do.
Agent of the Empire. What do I like more than spies and comics? Star Wars. So let’s mix them. The two arcs for Agent of the Empire, Iron Eclipse and Hard Target are what you get when you mix a galaxy far far away with James Bond. Sure we have had spies in Star Wars before like the Bothan Spynet or Winter, but the kicker is Jahan Cross works for the Empire. He is an Imperial agent but he is no lackey. He strongly believes in law and order and will do anything he has to support that goal. But his own moral code is as strong as any Jedi’s. He also does not subscribe to Palaptine’s prejudice against aliens, once having taken a Natolun lover. And if the series really got to progress you know he would eventually turn against his former masters in a big way.
Unfortunately with Dark Horse losing the license for Star Wars Comics next year, we will never get to see anymore of Agent Cross. Though to be fair Dark Horse hadn’t made any announcement about continuing the series since the second arc. One can only hope that Marvel/Disney will keep up quality product like this title. I am just not sure if they are willing to something as edgy as making us root for the bad guy.
Fables: The series fables is all about turning the old stories on their heads. Price Charming is a dirt bag who keeps getting divorced for cheating on his wives. The Big Bad Wolf is a werewolf sheriff, and Goldie Locks is a psycho axe nut. So it is not surprise what they have done to Cinderella. I have to admit that Cinderella is probably my least favorite fairy tale princess. Nothing personal it just the whole rag to riches story never took hold in me. Now Cindy, Fables black op is another story. Trained for over a century as Fable Towns, off the books covert op, this adrenaline junkie is the ultimate supper spy. Unlike most fables she has no problem fusing magic and high tech together and as long as her story is still in the public’s imagination she is almost impossible to kill. The rest of Fable Town thinks she is just a spoiled globetrotting shoe store owner, but secretly she is a serious but kicker.
There are two Cindy mini-series, From Fable Town With Love and Fables are Forever, you can see the Bond influence in the titles. Everything you would expect in a classic spy comic is here, suave handsome allied agents who may be running their own agendas, check. Issues with a cover identity running into mission life, check. Internal politics screwing with a mission check. Hot girl in a scuba suit wielding a P-90 check. But it also has some very fair tale elements too, like a crazy fairy god-mothers, polar bears wielding Ak-47’s, flying carpets and time freezing mice. It is an awesome blend of fantasy and espionage.
Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon: Let’s face it bows and arrows are cool but not really practical as a covert weapon. Sure they are silent, but big and clunky and the fastest a real archer can shot an arrow every 1.5 seconds, the cyclic rate of a MP-5 is 800 round per minute. Not to mention how much room it takes to carry arrows. And let’s face it an archer is about as useless in a superhero hero world as in a covert op sitting. Still Clint Barton carries on because he is cool.
I got My Life as a Weapon because it was on the shelf of my local library and a free read is a free read. I had heard mixed reviews about it and wasn’t to enthused by the art. But it does contain some good stories. I am not sure if the first three stories are really espionage or not. Clint takes on some local Russian Mafioso, and rips off a criminal robbing other criminals. More vigilante or early Max Bolan than anything else, but not quite The Avengers either. The next tale The Tape is pure covert ops. A villain has a VCR tape of Hawkeye killing a terrorist under government orders, and he is auctioning it too the highest bidder. If it gets out it is proof that the US used an Avenger as assassin, and could lead to ruing to the presidential administration, the Avengers and Clint. Clint has to use some hard core tradecraft to get it back. The finial story is a Young Justice Young Avengers Present story that tells how Clint meet fellow Hawkeye and his protégé Kate Bishop.
I really learned to love Katie in this book and I think she is the high point of the story. I really enjoy Clint and Kate’s relationship. Their definitely have a sexual undertone to it. But there is an age difference, he is in his mid-thirties and she is nineteen-ish. They also have an enormous amount of professionals respect for each other. Clint calls Kate perfect when she shots some villains in the eye saving him but not killing them just blinding them. But when he blurts out that he doesn’t want to sleep with her, you know that is the exact opposite of what he is thinking. Still I think the writers should keep the Steed and Peel sexual tension going without them crossing the lines, nothing breaks up a good espionage team like sex.
Executive Assistant Iris: Iris lives in a world where evil men control by condition and technology women and make them their slaves and assassins. Oh like that is going to work, you know sooner or later that they are going to break free of their master’s will and reign down carnage and death on those that oppress them. Of course this can be deadly for the girls too. One of my first experiences with Iris is one of the girls I assume is the hero of the story gets killed after three issues in a very unheroic way by a mind controlled Iris herself.
Eventually Iris turns to the most devious and dangerous organization in the world the CIA. Between mind control and manipulation the girls of Executive Assistant have only themselves to turn too. And even them that is an iffy proposition. They all have different personalities and many have different end games, some put rivalry before the operation. But one thing they all have in common is the power to strike at the man and look good doing it.
Queen and Country: The one thing that all the above titles have in common is there is a high degree of fantasy. Whether it be fairy god mothers, Star Destroyers, or mind control devices. Queen and Country is based on real world tradecraft with real human being caught in the middle. Think of it as this way, the other stories are like Roger Moore James Bond and Q&C is like 24.
Greg Rucka was influenced by a British spy series form the eighties called The Sand Baggers. You see this in his work, where the politics are almost as deadly as the terrorist. In one arc the mane characters code named the Minders, are set up to be killed by their own government by assassins in their own country, were law strictly prohibits them from carrying weapons. Not only do we see the missions but how it effects the agent’s home life and mental stability. This is something that is basically ignored in most espionage tales. We see how the Minders use alcohol, sex and patriotism to try to deal with a world where they have to do some very bad things.
Rucka is a novelist who got into comic books with White Out, tells the stories mainly by comics but there are three novels that go along with it. Gentleman’s Game, Private wars and The Last Run. There were also three TPB called Queen and Country Declassified that tell the back story of three of the stories protagonists. If you are looking for realistic characters in a real world sitting then Q&C is your book.